Nietzsche, myths, pictures

In his works, Nietzsche diagnosed a widespread crisis (nihilism) in European modernity. But he did not regard himself as a mere diagnostician: he also claimed to know how to cure (or at least treat) the moderns’ condition. What was needed, he thought, was a reorientation of their entire way of seeing, thinking and feeling, a reorientation that went beyond a change in beliefs at a rational, theoretical level.

Commentators often describe this project by analogy to Wittgenstein’s famous notion of freeing someone from the grip of a picture that “holds them captive”. Through this method, Wittgenstein sought to alleviate philosophical questions not by providing theoretical answers to those questions, but instead by dislodging the underlying confusions that prompted them to ask the questions in the first place – getting them to see things differently and stop asking these confused questions altogether. Nietzsche can likewise be understood as attempting to bring about a change in the picture which holds the moderns captive, though the notion of myth rather than picture predominates in his works.

In the following, I want to look more closely at the full complexity of what this analogy might involve by unpacking certain ambiguities inherent both to (interpretations of) Wittgenstein’s notion of a picture and Nietzsche’s talk of myth, and by drawing a number of distinctions that are not always clearly made: in particular, the distinction between a “picture” or “myth” as a means used to bring about a change in our way of seeing, and between a “picture” or “myth” as a way of seeing. I lay out a number of possible alternatives, though without choosing between them (or, on any interpretation, actually endorsing Nietzsche’s diagnostic or therapeutic project).

What is a picture or a myth, in this sense? In both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, there is some overlap in how the terms are used. They can vary in scope from individual “illustrated turns of speech” (PI I: 295) – pithy, arresting expressions of, or gestures towards, a particular way of seeing or thinking about things – through to more complex (narrative) structures composed of such individual elements or in which they are embedded, right up to overarching mythologies or “world-pictures” that are fundamental to some particular form of life. Whatever their scope, they are supposed to serve as a sort of pretheoretical orienting framework.

In his early works, Nietzsche explicitly promotes (Wagnerian tragic) myth as a response to the cultural crisis of modernity, and although the term “myth” is used less in his later works, myths remain central to his project: the Dionysian myth, the mythic narrative of Zarathustra, the mythologising genealogy of morality, the mythical parables of eternal return (with regard to the latter, cf. Wittgenstein’s claim that mythic narratives convey the sense “that this is all a repetition of something that has happened before” (LC, p. 43) – according to this claim, the parables of eternal return would effectively be directly inviting us to regard our lives in a mythical mode). His notion of myth is frequently associated with (Apollonian) pictures. Conversely, Wittgenstein himself occasionally linked the notion of pictures to mythologies (OC 95, 97) and many of his interpreters are more explicit: for example, Stanley Cavell describes something which Wittgenstein calls a picture, “I cannot know what is going on in him” (PI II:xi, p. 190), as “the myth of the body as a veil” (Cavell 1979: 368). According to Cavell, Wittgenstein seeks to replace this with the new myth, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (PI II: iv, p. 152). Meanwhile, David Egan (Egan 2011: 68) says that Wittgensteinian pictures are “like organising myths, which orient our thinking in a broad sense”.

Here is where there is an important ambiguity across all the different accounts. This ambiguity is brought out most clearly by comparing Charles Taylor’s account of what he calls “hypergoods” (an analogous notion of an orienting framework): he describes them both as “a standpoint” from which evaluations are made (Taylor 1992: 63) and as “landmarks for what [agents] judge to be the direction of their lives” (Taylor 1992: 62). But this is mixing the spatial metaphor: a landmark is something I look at, a standpoint is the perspective I look at something from. We find this same ambiguity in Nietzsche: myth is both “a mode of thinking” (a standpoint) (UM IV: 9, p. 236) and an “image of the world” that “communicates an idea of the world” (a landmark) (UM IV: 9, pp. 242, 236). And also in interpretations of Wittgenstein: according to Baker’s influential interpretation, a picture is a “a way of seeing things” or a “way of looking at or regarding things” (Baker 2004: 266), and being freed from the grip of a picture is analogous to a “change of aspect”: coming to see things a different way, just like (in Wittgenstein’s famous example) when we shift from seeing the duck-rabbit figure as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit. But there are two distinct senses of picture in this analogy: on the one hand, picture as a way of seeing, the aspect under which we are seeing (standpoint) and on the other hand, the picture that is being looked at (landmark), i.e. the duck-rabbit figure itself (or, alternatively, another picture that we are invited to look at in order to get us to see the first one differently – e.g. an unambiguous rabbit-picture).  A pertinent, though slightly distinct, point is put thusly by Egan: “Is Wittgenstein shifting the aspect of the same picture here, or is he offering us an alternative picture? Baker’s work seems ambiguous on this point.” (Egan 2011: 66).

Despite this ambiguity, one sense in which we could see the notion of myth as landmark and that of myth as standpoint as related immediately leaps to mind: thinking in a mythic mode (standpoint) is oriented by a mythic narrative or narratives: in Nietzsche’s own favoured examples, the ancient Greeks’ perspective is oriented by the myth of Prometheus, while the Judeo-Christian perspective is oriented by the myth of the Fall.

Correspondingly, one tempting thought is that the moderns could be shifted to a mythic mode of thought (standpoint) through giving them the orienting mythic narrative (landmark) that corresponds to this mythic mode: so for instance, they could be shifted to the Wagnerian mythic mode by means of Der Ring des Nibelungen or to the Nietzschean mythic mode by means of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, these being the myths which (at least in theory) orient the Wagnerian and Nietzschean mythic modes respectively. Accordingly, the therapeutic project practised or recommended by Nietzsche could simply consist in presenting the moderns with the corresponding myth that orients the (right kind of) mythical mode of thought (i.e. Wagnerian or Dionysian rather than Socratic or Judeo-Christian), either filling the mythless void or replacing the pernicious myth/picture that currently has them in its grip.

However, the fact that those who think in a particular mythic mode are oriented by a particular mythic narrative or picture does not entail that presenting people who do not yet think in this particular mythic mode with the corresponding mythic narrative or picture will be sufficient to reorient them towards this mythic mode of thought. We must heed an important lesson from Wittgenstein here: a picture or myth (in the sense of a landmark) can only orient us through being applied in a certain way, and hence can do so only if we are able to thus apply it. The fact that the ancient Greeks were capable of being oriented in a certain way by the myth of Prometheus does not entail that the moderns could also be thus oriented; because of their particular perspective (conditioned by their form of life, sensibilities, etc.) they may be unable to receive and apply the myth of Prometheus in the way that the ancient Greeks did. I noted earlier that Egan asks, by analogy to aspect-seeing, whether Wittgenstein (or, by extension, Nietzsche) is offering us a new picture or shifting the aspect of an existing picture; but continuing this analogy, if a new picture (or myth) were to be offered, what it will present to us will depend on what aspect it is seen under. Someone who sees a picture under the wrong aspect will not apply the picture normally; analogously, someone who is unable to apprehend a myth in the appropriate mode will not be able to apply it in a way that orients their thought in a mythic mode.

So even if Nietzsche’s ultimate aim is for the moderns’ perspective to be converted to the characteristic mythological mode of thought oriented by a myth such as Der Ring des Nibelungen or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, they may not be capable of being converted by means of the myths that would orient them post-conversion. The aim of establishing an orienting myth should not be mistaken for the method of using a reorienting myth to achieve this aim, even if one and the same myth could serve both functions (though Zarathustra remarks “you cannot learn to fly by flying” (Z, Of the Spirit of Gravity)).

Once we start to tease apart myths as landmarks and myths as standpoints in this way, a whole range of possibilities opens up. I will conclude by laying out some of these alternatives, without choosing between them.

(1) For instance: I suggested earlier that Nietzsche might be trying to shift the moderns towards a mythic mode of thought (a standpoint) by means of providing mythic narratives (landmarks). But perhaps although Nietzsche provides mythic narratives as landmarks to help shift the moderns towards a new mode of thought, this new mode of thought or way of seeing is not itself a mythic one (i.e. not one oriented by a myth). Nietzsche’s narratives (especially Zarathustra) have the trappings characteristic of myth: set in fantastical worlds populated by mythical beings, suffused with an atmosphere of profundity and higher purpose, replete with quasi-Christian imagery (on which more shortly). Arguably, Nietzsche wishes to shift the moderns towards a mode of thought in which the craving for an eternal metaphysical grounding (a craving that is central to myth) is absent. If so, the mythic form of Zarathustra is geared to appeal to its readers’ current standpoint (i.e. sensibilities to which overtly mythical or even Christian imagery still appeals) rather than to the standpoint Nietzsche ultimately wants to steer them towards: it is a myth that overcomes itself, to be discarded once its work is done. Alternatively, Nietzsche may not hold out hope of a permanent cure, but see himself as offering tools tailored to particular sensibilities that his readers can use to temporarily reorient their perspective: this new orientation cannot become permanently, habitually embedded as it was in some prelapsarian Golden Age, but individual, conscious acts of volition aided by Nietzschean myths such as the parable of eternal return (choosing to see the world like this, much as one can choose to see the duck-rabbit as a rabbit; or being nudged into seeing things differently whenever I bring the parable or some other “illustrated turn of phrase” to mind) can at least arouse it temporarily.

(2) Or another possibility: Nietzsche’s ultimate aim is indeed for the moderns to be converted to a mythic mode of thought oriented by a particular mythic narrative or narratives that he offers them. But his readers are not (yet) able to apply the myths and pictures he provides in a way that thus orients them. Their standpoints first need to be transformed for them to become properly receptive to what he has to offer them – before they are capable of being appropriately oriented by the mythic landmarks they can find in his work. On this possibility, the mythic landmarks that Nietzsche provides need not necessarily be part of his method for reorienting their standpoints at all – this reorientation of standpoint might need to be effected by other means, perhaps involving a radical transformation of the form of life in which this standpoint is embedded or by which it is conditioned.

The moderns’ current pathological standpoint might itself stand in the way of any attempt made by Nietzsche to transform it, because these attempts will, as it were, have to be filtered through the lens of this pathological perspective and applied accordingly. It is sometimes suggested that Nietzsche therefore needs to target his readers at an affective rather than a theoretical level, but this is too simplistic: it is possible to trigger strong emotions simply by activating, rather than transforming, existing sensibilities and dispositions. One way Nietzsche might bypass this difficulty is by presenting his readers with elements whose application is not immediately obvious, and which therefore resist smooth, automatic uptake by an existing (pathological or pernicious) perspective: for example, provocatively baffling, outrageous, extreme, paradoxical, oblique or straightforwardly nonsensical statements. Compelling readers to actively engage in a new mode of application or seeing opens up the possibility of this new mode becoming habitual and replacing the old, pathological mode. Another way, discussed by Christopher Janaway, is for him to first arouse in his readers symptoms of the very pathology he wishes to cure them of, and then to force them into devastating awareness of these symptoms.

(3) Yet another possibility: Nietzsche is not in fact offering a new myth (in the sense of landmark) at all, but making available a new way of seeing and applying an existing myth. The most obvious way of understanding Nietzsche’s goal is that he is freeing us from the Christian myth or world-picture and replacing it with another, better picture. But what if, despite his fierce avowals that he is doing away with Christianity, Nietzsche is in fact reapplying rather than discarding the Christian world-picture? A number of commentators (including Mulhall 2005 and 2009, von Tevenar 2013, Fraser 2002 and Cavell 1979) have suggested that he is doing just that – reappropriating Christian imagery, language and narratives in a way that orients the moderns towards a fruitful, life-affirming perspective instead of a nihilistic, life-denying one (this is analogous to the suggestion that in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is not inviting readers to discard the Augustinian picture of language altogether, but instead teaching them how and when to apply it in a way that helps orient our understanding of language: when his interlocutor asks whether the Augustinian picture is a “usable [brauchbar] representation [Darstellung] or not?” (PI I:3, translation modified), Wittgenstein replies: “Yes, it is usable, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to represent [darstellen].” (PI I:3)).

(4) Another possibility centres on the significance of what it means to be in the grip of or held captive by a picture. Baker suggests that “being held captive” is a special and pernicious way of relating to a picture: one which holds us “in a cramped position” or keeps us “in thrall” (Baker 2004: 264) because a feeling of necessity attaches itself to the picture (Egan 2011). Wittgenstein’s readers stand in this relationship to the Augustinian picture of language; the problem is not just that they do not turn their eyes away from the picture, but that they cannot: Wittgenstein’s therapy must not just shift them away from the Augustinian picture or a certain way of applying it, but must first make it possible for them to shift away or be shifted away.

We may think this is also true of Nietzsche’s therapy: that the moderns do not merely occupy the Christian world-picture but are trapped in it, and this is why a two-stage therapeutic approach is required, first to free them from captivity and secondly to shift them to a new standpoint. Alternatively (or additionally), we may cast the Christian world-picture in a different role in this schema: instead of (or as well as) the Christian world-picture being the picture towards which the moderns stand in the relation of being held captive, perhaps instead (or additionally) it is through being oriented by the Christian world-picture that the moderns are caused to be held captive by pictures in general. Before the moderns can shift away from this picture or pictures, they need to be released from their grip: they need to come to experience the contingency of the picture that holds them captive, to appreciate it as just one possible orienting landmark, or one possible way of looking at things, perhaps to see precisely that their perspective is perspectival rather than consisting in transcendent, unmediated access to truth. Something like a Brechtian “Verfremdungseffekt” might be needed. The non-naturalistic mode of myths might be a particularly apt way of achieving this; alternatively, it is also possible that mythic forms might enforce a sense of the unalterable solidity of some intransient world and hence run counter to attempts to instill a sense of contingency. It is also often claimed that Nietzsche’s critical genealogies aim to dislodge the grip of certain perspectives by revealing their historical contingency.


Works referenced

(a) By Nietzsche

UM      Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1873–1876])

Z          Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1969 [1883–1885])

(b) By Wittgenstein

LC        Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966)

OC       On Certainty, eds. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)

PI         Philosophical Investigations, 3rd edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001 [1953])

(c) Other authors

Baker, Gordon P. (2004 [2001]) “Wittgenstein: Concepts or Conceptions?” in Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects (Malden, MA: Blackwell), pp. 260–78

Cavell, Stanley (1979) The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Egan, David (2011) “Pictures in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, Philosophical Investigations 34 (1), pp. 55–76

Mulhall, Stephen (2005) Philosophical Myths of the Fall (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press)

Mulhall, Stephen (2009) “Nietzsche’s Style of Address: A Response to Christopher Janaway’s Beyond Selflessness”, European Journal of Philosophy 17 (1), pp. 121–31

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

Von Tevenar, Gudrun (2013) “Zarathustra: ‘That Malicious Dionysian’’ in Ken Gemes and John Richardson (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 272–97









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